Dreaming of and scouting a potential North American open-wheel draft

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So last night we had the NBA Draft (more via ProBasketballTalk here), and this morning, we had the announcement of a new team for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series with a rookie driver in Stefan Wilson.

Because of the rarity of a new team in IndyCar (there hasn’t been one full-time in three years), bringing in a rookie driver, it got me thinking: Who are the blue-chip prospects IndyCar teams could pick if bringing money were no object and the opportunity was there to just pick their drivers on outright talent?

Yes, this will never happen and yes, money remains the calling card to get into IndyCar. I get it, but this is meant to be fun.

It’s probably worth sorting through the prospects first, then envisioning their potential suitors. This is in no particular order, but these are some current and past drivers from the Mazda Road to Indy without a full season of IndyCar experience we should be watching for over the next two-three years:

  • Sage Karam: Has some serious star potential, already four years experience in the Mazda Road to Indy, two championships (USF2000 and Indy Lights) and made a serious case for Rookie-of-the-Year honors at the Indianapolis 500.
  • Conor Daly: Has the name, a single Indianapolis 500 start under his belt, and versatility that’s been unmatched over the last couple years between various series and type of cars he’s raced. He’s hungry for a full-season chance.
  • Gabby Chaves: Has taken the next step in Indy Lights this year, and added sports car racing to his repertoire with testing and racing the DeltaWing. The next possible Colombian star, although he shares dual citizenship with the U.S.
  • Matthew Brabham: Like Daly, has a legendary surname. Fearless, fast and already fairly mature for his age, although he hasn’t been as impressive in Indy Lights as he was on his way to winning championships in Pro Mazda and USF2000.
  • Zach Veach: Veach’s marketing game was long his top selling point, but he’s substantially improved as a driver this year in Indy Lights. Perhaps not the out-and-out fastest prospect, but brings a good package to a team.
  • Luiz Razia: The Brazilian was on the doorstep of Formula One a year and a half ago and has the chops and speed needed to advance next year.
  • Jack Harvey: The Englishman might need another year in Indy Lights if he doesn’t win this year, but has potential.
  • Spencer Pigot: Top American talent in Pro Mazda is probably two years away from IndyCar, but has succeeded in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda.
  • Scott Hargrove: We need another top-level Canadian and the 2013 USF2000 champion is the best Canuck candidate at the moment. Has expanded his horizons to sports cars, and already has bagged three wins in Porsche GT3 Canada this year.
  • Shelby Blackstock: Versatility is his big selling point, having raced Pro Mazda, CTSC GS cars and the Nurburgring 24 this year. Yes, he’s Reba’s son, but he’s got a great work ethic and way of going about developing his career.
  • Garett Grist: Blackstock’s Andretti Autosport Pro Mazda teammate has a win on his belt and is quietly talented. He’s not the first guy you’d pick if you had the chance, but he’s very solid.
  • Neil Alberico: Has shaded Hargrove a bit in Pro Mazda this year. Has potential, but at the moment feels like a driver who – in stick-and-ball terms – had a great freshman or sophomore year but hasn’t made that next level leap.
  • Peter Dempsey: The 2013 Freedom 100 winner hasn’t had a full-time ride this season, so he’s on an unofficial “redshirt” year where scouts would be evaluating him based on his making the most of limited opportunities from 2009 through 2013.
  • Alex Baron: Young French driver perhaps moved up to Indy Lights too soon this year. He could use another year of seasoning before he would declare for IndyCar. That said, has potential and speed to burn based on his USF2000 cameos in 2013.
  • Mikael Grenier: French-Canadian already has a development deal with KV Racing Technology, so he’s halfway in already. Has done fine in limited Indy Lights action.
  • RC Enerson: First of the USF2000 drivers we’d be looking at. Young Floridian’s the equivalent of a college sophomore in racing terms, who’s racing wiser and more mature than he did as a freshman, but still with room to grow.
  • Florian Latorre: French USF2000 sophomore has done the equivalent of transferring colleges, in switching from the Belardi to Cape teams, and has excelled in his new environment. Still two to three years away, but has good racecraft.
  • Jake Eidson: Team USA Scholarship winner is consistent and doesn’t make mistakes, but hasn’t yet found the out-and-out pace needed to be a contender.
  • Aaron Telitz/Peter Portante: The two ArmsUp Motorsports USF2000 teammates are something of a package deal for their mix of humor, racecraft and potential. I’m not sure whether either will ever make it to IndyCar, but they make life fun in the USF2000 series.
  • Daniel Burkett: Same story as above for the Belardi USF2000 shoe, who could parlay his humor and red hair into an opportunity down the road.

INTERNATIONAL PROSPECTS!

If you don’t have a development or junior contract with a Formula One team, or millions in your pockets, it’s going to be hard to make it into F1. So some of these GP2 or GP3 drivers might be worth considering:

  • GP2: Jolyon Palmer, Julian Leal, Stefano Coletti, Mitch Evans, Raffaele Marciello, Tom Dillmann
  • GP3: Alex Lynn, Richie Stanaway, Dean Stoneman, Dino Zamparelli

LIMITED, BUT ACTUAL, INDYCAR EXPERIENCE

There’s several drivers – think a Luca Filippi, Martin Plowman, James Davison, Pippa Mann, and on down the line – who have had IndyCar race experience over the last few years but never a full season in the championship. You’d like to see them have a shot, but I wouldn’t factor them into this hypothetical, completely fictional draft.

SO WHERE COULD THEY LAND? 

Now, obviously, there’s more drivers worth watching than there are available seats. Where could these prospects land over the next few years?

  • Target Chip Ganassi Racing: Figure Tony Kanaan has in the neighborhood of two to three years left, likely, so the potential of a seat in one of the marquee Target cars could become available.
  • Team Penske: Two seats are possible, if Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya opt to hang it up sooner rather than later.
  • Andretti Autosport: A seat only opens here if one of the team’s four drivers moves on. But Michael Andretti has an internal ladder system and could easily promote a Brabham, a Veach or a Blackstock two or three years from now.
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: If Simon Pagenaud was to move up to another team, perhaps a spot opens here?
  • Dale Coyne Racing: Always a possible seat here in the second car.
  • Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing: Much as was done for Josef Newgarden, here’s a perfect place for a youngster to learn and develop if Newgarden gets the call up to a bigger team.

Again, this is purely hypothetical, but is interesting to project over the next couple years if and when there’s a changing of the guard on the grid.

Indy Lights: Chad Boat to make Indy Lights debut with Belardi

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Belardi Auto Racing, which currently fields entries for Aaron Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Shelby Blackstock in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, announced on Tuesday that USAC standout Chad Boat, son of former Verizon IndyCar Series race winner Billy Boat, will make his Indy Lights debut with the Brian Belardi led-outfit. Boat will contest the July 9 race at Iowa Speedway, a track he has previously raced on in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and will return for the August 26 event at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“We’re extremely pleased to announce the addition of Chad Boat to our stable of drivers for the Iowa and Gateway Indy Lights oval races this summer,” team owner Brian Belardi detailed. “It’s exciting to have a second-generation driver running with us, and we’re certainly looking forward to getting Chad on track in Iowa.”

The younger Boat has become a star in his own right in USAC, winning Rookie of the Year honors in both the USAC National Midget and Sprint car divisions. The 25-year-old will pilot the No. 84 entry, with sponsorship from Pristine Auction.

“I grew up watching my dad race Indy cars, so having the opportunity to run Indy Lights this year is absolutely surreal,” said Boat. “I have to thank Belardi Auto Racing for giving me a shot behind the wheel of the No. 84 Dallara, as well as Pristine Auction for their continued support in my racing career. I can’t wait to get to Iowa Speedway.”

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Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

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Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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